With friends like these: China's awkward position after North Korea's missile test

With friends like these: China's awkward position after North Korea's missile test

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BEIJING — There’s never a great time to fire off rockets potentially capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but China has been left in an awkward position by the timing of North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test, experts said.

Pyongyang said on Monday this weekend’s test of the “medium-to-long range” missile had been successful, according to the official KCNA news agency. But there were probably a few palms slamming into faces in Beijing.

The missile launch took place while President Trump was playing host to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and will intensify pressure from both countries on China to do more to restrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Both, along with South Korea, have requested an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York on Monday night, to discuss the incident. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has also expressed concern, RIA news agency reported.

China’s Foreign Ministry said Monday it opposed the test, with spokesman Geng Shuang telling reporters his government would “take a constructive and responsible part” in the discussions at the U.N.

The missile test took place just as Sino-U.S. relations were beginning to look up, a few days after Trump held what was said to be an “extremely cordial” call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But Trump has in the past made clear he does not believe China is doing enough to rein in its ally in Pyongyang.

Zhang Liangui, a Korea expert at Beijing’s Central Party School in Beijing, which trains Communist party officials, said the timing was “well thought through” by Pyongyang to undermine China’s ties with the United States.

“It clearly intended to affect the development of Sino-US relations,” Zhang said. “But what matters is how China and the United States handle it.”

The missile test also came as China is campaigning intensely against U.S. plans to deploy the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea, which Beijing sees as a threat to its own security.

It was a timely reminder not just for the Trump administration of why those missile defense plans are important, but also for the candidates in this year’s South Korea’s presidential elections, where public opinion on the issue is divided, experts said.

“There was opposition inside South Korean against the THAAD deployment,” said Cui Zhiying, a Korean affairs expert at Tongji University. “However, after the missile test, I fear these opposition voices will become much smaller.”

In an editorial Monday, the official English-language China Daily newspaper said the missile test provided “a good excuse” for the United States and their military allies to step up their military cooperation.

As usual, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng argued that the root cause of North Korea’s nuclear program was its dispute with the United States, and called on “all relevant parties to refrain from provoking each other and escalating tensions in the region.”

China has long said that  “dialogue and consultation” is the only way forward, but the Obama administration had refused to talk unless North Korea first pledged to denuclearize.

In an editorial, the nationalist Global Times newspaper called North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile program a “severe annoyance for Northeast Asia,” but also said Pyongyang faces a “very real” military threat, as well as harsh sanctions.

“We can imagine the level of its upset and rage,” it argued. “If Washington keeps cracking down on Pyongyang’s nuclear development while turning a blind eye to North Korea’s concerns, their current confrontation will develop into an absurd struggle.”

Earlier in the day, Japan urged China to take stronger action against North Korea after the missile test, the first from Kim Jong Un’s regime since Trump took office. It said Pyongyang’s ability to put a nuclear warhead on a missile had risen after the weekend test.

“As a permanent member of the Security Council and chair of the six-party talks, and as a country that accounts for 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, China’s role is extremely important,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, according to Bloomberg news agency. “As the government, we’ll continue to push China for constructive involvement at various levels.”

Before taking office, Trump vowed to prevent North Korea from being able to acquire the capability to strike at the United States with a nuclear weapon. In a joint appearance at the weekend, Japan’s Abe called the test “absolutely intolerable” and Trump said he stood by Japan “100 percent.”

China is North Korea’s primary ally and accounts for more 70 percent of its neighbor’s trade, as well as providing food and energy aid. While it has supported limited sanctions by the U.N. Security Council, it is very reluctant to take firm economic action that it fears could destabilize the regime.

North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, including two last year, although its claims to be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile have never been verified independently. Leader Kim said in his New Year speech the North was close to test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), something that could threaten the continental United States, which is about 5,500 miles from North Korea.

China is unlikely to support tougher punishment for North Korea unless and until it tests an ICBM or a nuclear weapon, said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. But he added the latest test, which appeared to be the second outing for a missile that could be fired from a submarine, was a “fairly significant step up the ladder,” and could threaten U.S. bases in Asia.

simon.denyer@washpost.com

Luna Lin and Xin Jin contributed to this report.

 

This article was written by Simon Denyer from The Washington Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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